Despite months of secrecy about his plans for city schools, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s priorities are taking shape, according to people who have discussed education with City Hall.
If he wins control of the schools, Bloomberg wants to:
Shake up personnel in hundreds of low-performing schools.
Push programs proven to lift test scores – and possibly drop some popular programs that don’t.
Shift the school system’s non-educational tasks to other city agencies or even private companies.
Since his inauguration in January, Bloomberg has fought with Albany to allow him to take over the city’s 1,100 schools. State lawmakers are willing to let the mayor hire the schools chancellor and control a majority of votes on an expanded, policy-making Board of Education. The mayor now appoints two members of the school board; the city’s five borough presidents appoint one board member apiece. City Hall is also pushing Albany to abolish the 32 Community School Boards, so far without success.
Throughout the negotiations with state lawmakers, Bloomberg and his aides have refused to say what City Hall would do to overhaul the massive school system, saying they wanted the debate to center on school governance rather than specific policies.
But interviews with more than a dozen people who have talked about education with Bloomberg administration officials reveal the mayor prefers to steer education policy for 1.1 million students.
“They have some general outlines of what they want to do,” said Sy Fliegel, president of the Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association, a nonprofit think tank. “They want an emphasis on outcomes, not inputs, so they’re going to want to know: Are schools meeting the standards?”
First, Bloomberg wants to expand practices in the Chancellor’s District to as many as 300 low-performing schools, according to two people familiar with the mayor’s goals. In the 48-school Chancellor’s District, which was created several years ago to shake up failing schools, officials can replace principals and up to half the teaching staff, something union contracts often prevent from happening swiftly.
The mayor also wants more schools to use classroom programs that have shown tangible results on reading and math tests, according to several people. This is one reason he appears committed to English immersion courses for non-English speaking students, one consultant said.
Finally, to streamline the school bureaucracy, Bloomberg wants to outsource tasks to other city agencies or private firms, three people said. Operations that could be sent elsewhere include bus service, food preparation, building maintenance, legal work, human resources and investigations.
Other ideas under consideration by City Hall include:
A public relations campaign to boost parental involvement in children’s education. Parents would be encouraged to join school leadership teams, and efforts to have themwork as school volunteers and read to their children would be stepped up.
Training courses for teachers in the summer.
Closer ties between elementary and middle schools, which are run by Community School Districts, and high schools, which are governed by the chancellor.
After months of listening to City Hall’s questions and opinions, several experts have inferred the direction a City Hall-run school system would take. They emphasize, however, that these policies are not cemented and some described their views as “informed speculation.”
The fine print of a school governance deal and a new teachers contract, which may or may not include Bloomberg’s wish list of demands, will also affect the mayor’s ability to act. Teachers have been working without a contract for more than a year.
Deputy Mayor for Policy Dennis Walcott, the mayor’s point man on education, would not confirm or deny that any of these policies are under consideration, except to say that City Hall wants parents to be “intimate partners” in their children’s education.
“It’s all speculation, until the mayor deals with governance and settles the United Federation of Teachers contract and we have a chancellor in place,” Walcott said.
Bloomberg and Walcott have consulted with a broad range of education experts, parents and others about improving a system in which one-fifth of students drop out and the vast majority of schools fail state benchmarks for English and math.
In particular, the administration has sought advice from people tied to the private sector, such as the New York City Partnership, real-estate developer Jerry Speyer and former AOL-Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin.
City Hall also has received counsel from Schools Chancellor Harold Levy, state Regent Merryl Tisch, former Chancellor Frank Macchiarola, and several of New York’s university professors.
Walcott and other aides also conducted brown-bag lunch discussions at City Hall with non-profit groups such as the Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association, Advocates for Children, Educational Priorities Panel, New Visions for Public Schools and Learning Leaders. Those lunches ended two months ago after Walcott said the mayor wanted to focus solely on school governance, participants said.
Walcott also has met with scores of parents, community school board members and other interested citizens in all five boroughs.
Kathryn Wylde, president of the New York City Partnership, a non-profit group that represents the city’s business community, summed up Bloomberg’s approach.
“The major thrust that the mayor’s going to introduce is, one, refocus on the classroom and away from the bureaucracy,” said Wylde, “and a simultaneous focus on engaging parents in a more real way.”
Last week, Bloomberg, calling the school system “a disgrace,” said mayoral control would “start the long process of fixing a school system that just leaves too many kids behind.”
In speeches and at news conferences, the mayor has explained his management philosophy: give the chancellor, superintendents and principals more authority and hold them accountable for success or failure.
Bloomberg has also said he may appoint a chief executive with management experience, plus a deputy with education experience as second-in-command.
And he says the school system should, at a minimum, teach students to read and speak English, do math and “work with others.”
The mayor, a self-made billionaire who created a financial information company, also likes to say that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” This essential trust in numbers has driven many of City Hall’s conclusions about education, those involved in discussions said.
One professor described his approach as “a managerial model.”
Bloomberg wants school leaders to think and behave more like entrepreneurs, selecting policies based on candid assessments of performance, instead of starry-eyed ideals, according to several people.
“If people can make a case demonstrating that a particular program will improve student achievement, my sense is the mayor will back it,” said the leader of a non-profit group. “But the case has to be made with data that shows it’s not a will-of-the wisp solution.”
Bloomberg’s mindset could drive discussions about politically sensitive issues such as the future of bilingual education.
Under pressure from former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who wanted to end bilingual classes, the Board of Education last year decided to offer more English instruction and some English immersion classes without ending dual-language programs altogether.
Bloomberg has said his chancellor would implement “total immersion” to teach English to immigrants. His opinion has only been reinforced by poor test results for students in bilingual programs, said one professor.
Advocates of bilingual programs – as well as many education advocates generally – often complain that the real problem is a lack of funding. That argument isn’t likely to sway a mayor facing a $5-billion budget deficit.
“I think the default position is immersion, because it wouldn’t take a lot of additional resources to do,” the professor said. “And I gather that the mayor is already convinced that that is the way to go.”
The experts also assume Bloomberg wants to build ties between private companies and the public schools. Principals could shop for supplies at, say, Staples, rather than relying on government purchasing. And the mayor would encourage companies to offer donations and advice.
Could the Department of Transportation oversee school buses and could the Department of Investigation conduct school corruption probes? Could the city hire Marriott to make school lunches, or Manpower Inc. to recruit thousands of teachers?
By cutting away chunks of the school bureaucracy, City Hall sees an opportunity to focus on the classroom and to strip away duplicated services. As a side benefit, this would also allow the mayor to claim that more education dollars are going directly into classrooms.
“I think they will try to take each entity that comprises the whole operation and try to farm it out to the appropriate agency within the city government,” said a former Board of Education official.
But one expert said Bloomberg may not be “ready to cross that bridge” because it would entail battles with municipal unions over jobs and other issues. State law may also limit Bloomberg’s options to outsource school services.
No one said Bloomberg appears interested in hiring private education companies, such as Edison Schools, to run public schools.
Bloomberg and his aides are also brainstorming ways to boost the basic skills of tens of thousands of students in low-performing schools.
Many students in the Chancellor’s District have shown solid improvement after the Board of Education removed their school from its local district and spent millions to shrink class sizes, train teachers, add 20 minutes to the school day and implement the highly structured Success For All curriculum.
The mayor wants to bring those practices to a broader selection of schools – perhaps as many as 200 elementary and 100 middle schools, said one professor. The dilemma is how to do that without the high price tag, two consultants said.